Interview: Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She has been the recipient of Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Awards, among others. Her most recent novels are Ancestral Night and The Red-Stained Wings. “A Time to Reap” is Bear’s fifth appearance in Uncanny, a beautifully crafted time-travel mystery set in rural New England.

Uncanny Magazine: I loved the setting of the story, and you do a wonderful job evoking the feel of the New England countryside. I didn’t realize until I looked it up afterwards that Mashpee is a real town—why did you opt to use a real place, and what made you choose Mashpee specifically?

Elizabeth Bear: Thank you! I grew up in New England in the 1970s, so writing this story was a real excursion into nostalgia for me. It was important to me to capture the flavor of the time and place, but I also wanted to avoid that sense of rose-colored glasses.

I picked Mashpee in part because I have always liked the name, and because I needed a small coastal town for the plot to work—and because I had an image in my head of the farmhouse that’s the main setting for the story, and so I had to find the right setting for the house—which is something of a character in the story itself.

Uncanny Magazine: Both mysteries and time-travel stories have a lot of elements to keep track of—suspects, timelines, where and when characters are at any given point in the story, etc. Did you find it difficult to keep track of all the elements in this story? What were the challenges and benefits of writing a murder mystery that is also a time-travel story?

Elizabeth Bear: Oh yes. This is one of the most technically challenging stories I’ve ever written (curiously, another story published this year, “Erase, Erase, Erase” in last month’s F&SF, is another) and it took me several years to write it. A big part of that was figuring out the end, and how the time travel worked, and what the outcome was for Kat.

Originally, I had thought of writing it with segments of the playscript interposed with the first-person narrative, but after experimenting with that tactic I realized that it was probably overly precious for the intimate story of a friendship between two strong, traumatized girls in mortal peril that I wanted to tell.

Uncanny Magazine: Speaking of mysteries and time travel… do you have a favorite mystery novel? A favorite time-travel story?

Elizabeth Bear: That’s a very hard question! I have a lot of favorites in both genres. Off the top of my head, for time-travel narratives, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book blew my socks off when I read it. I still think it’s her best long work. Octavia Butler’s Kindred is also amazing, and I have never gotten over Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

As for mystery novels… they tend to come in series, don’t they? I have a real appreciation for Val McDermid, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, Donna Andrews, Walter Mosley, Dorothy L. Sayers, John D. MacDonald, Barbara Neely… and yeah, that’s kind of a gamut. But there you go!

Uncanny Magazine: One focus in the story is the way the narrator studies Sissy looking for details that can be used to create a more realistic portrayal of her character. As an author, what kinds of details do you find the most useful for creating characters, and is there a lot of overlap between useful details for authors and useful details for actors?

Elizabeth Bear: I’m not an actor, so I don’t actually know the answer to that last question! But as a writer, what I look for is the telling detail, which I think is a term coined by John Gardner. Those specific things that show who a character is without being expected or just part of the stereotype of that category of person. What makes this frazzled mother different from every other frazzled mother? What makes them an individual?

Uncanny Magazine: “A Time to Reap” features a Broadway musical based on a mutliplayer immersive game. I am always intrigued by stories/narratives translated into a vastly different medium—if you could take one of your own works and have it turned into a musical/movie/video game/etc… what work would it be, and what medium would you pick?

Elizabeth Bear: I’d love to see some of my more world-buildy works translated into a sandbox game, actually. I think it would be fun to run around the world of the Eternal Sky as a mystically powerful humanoid tiger, for example, or visit the White Space world and bum around the galaxy with a gigantic praying mantis peace officer.

Uncanny Magazine: What’s next for you?

Elizabeth Bear: Disney World! Alas, no. I’ve got a science fiction novel called Machine, in the White Space universe, coming out next October (2020), so it’s copyedits and so forth on that—and I have a novel to write to finish out the Lotus Kingdoms trilogy that is due in April, so I’m on that pretty intensively until then!

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of the 2017 Hugo and Nebula finalist short story “Carnival Nine.” Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Asimov’s, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out with Fairwood Press in 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

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